Drama therapy and psychodrama
Fictional stories often capture our imagination because they take us away from our reality, transporting us to different times, places - even planets. In this space, we may find that we experience thoughts and feelings that we don't normally allow ourselves to feel in our everyday lives. It is this transformative power that is utilised within drama therapy and psychodrama.
The fiction element of this type of therapy acts like a filter, so that the feelings encountered don't engulf those taking part, instead allowing them to acknowledge and deal with what comes up as and when it surfaces. Enabling participants to experience and explore difficult emotions in this indirect way often triggers a sense of catharsis.
This page will look into the role drama plays in the therapy world and explains how it could be beneficial to you.
On this page
- What is drama therapy?
- What happens in a drama therapy session?
- Drama therapy activities
- What is psychodrama?
What is drama therapy?
Drama therapy is a type of therapy that allows you to explore emotional difficulties through the medium of drama. This could involve a variety of activities including writing and learning scripts, improvisation exercises, or activities using puppets and masks.
Drama therapy is often used within a group environment, however it can be used in one to one sessions too. A drama therapist will use different techniques and may help you create a fictional story to portray. Usually the fictitious story will be your own story re-told through different characters. Creating this space between yourself and the emotional concerns being explored can offer clarity and a sense of relief or catharsis.
The aims of drama therapy include:
- to solve a problem
- to achieve catharsis
- to understand yourself better
- to explore and overcome unhealthy behaviour
- to improve social skills.
The nature of drama therapy makes it ideal for people who are struggling to come to terms with the emotions or problems they're facing, as it addresses them in a more indirect way.
What happens in a drama therapy session?
Each therapy session will be different according to the needs of those taking part. Drama therapy can take place in a range of different settings including schools, prisons, social care facilities and private workspaces. This means that drama therapists often find themselves working with a range of different people who have different needs. It may be that everyone in one group is facing a similar issue, or you may all have different reasons for being there.
The first job of the drama therapist is to get to know you and what you are hoping to achieve through therapy. Once the therapist has a better understanding of your expectations and needs, the session can begin.
A typical group drama therapy session may work like this:
1. Check in – This is designed to help the drama therapist understand how you're feeling today. Younger children may be supported in this with the use of emotion cards.
2. Warm-up – At this point the drama therapist will want to prepare you for the session. A warm-up activity is something that loosens the muscles and engages the imagination; an example of this is the name game where members of the group introduce themselves by stating their name and miming an action that represents how they are feeling.
3. The main activity – This is when the therapist will help the group explore issues through various drama therapy techniques such as role-play.
4. Closing – At the end of the session the therapist may ask for your input into how you think the session went, or they may de-brief the group to let you know what you've achieved.
Drama therapy activities
For the main activity drama therapists can use a range of different techniques and activities including the following:
One of the most common activities used in drama therapy is role-play. This is when you act the part of a certain character in a certain situation. An example of this would be to act the part of a child or parent and to explore any emotions this brings to the surface.
To improvise in acting is to make up a scenario and dialogue on the spot. This technique may require you to work with others and makes you think on your feet.
Miming is essentially acting without the use of speech. This means that you will need to rely on your body language alone to portray a certain emotion or scenario. This can cause you to think in different ways and may tap into feelings you've not experienced before.
Using speech in drama therapy could involve speaking in ways you don't normally (for example if you have low self-confidence, your therapist may ask you to shout rather than whisper) or it may involve using language to describe the way a character is feeling.
Similarly to mime, movement therapy requires you to express emotions through your body rather than through speaking. You may find yourself dancing to do this, or indicating a state of mind through an action.
In some cases your drama therapist may ask you to re-enact behaviours or situations that have caused you problems in the past. This can be a difficult task to undertake as it can cause you to remember and re-experience difficult emotions. The idea behind doing this is to help you learn how you can do things differently in the future or simply understand why what happened affected you the way it did.
Use of props and masks
Sometimes using props and masks during a drama therapy activity can help you to take on different roles. These can be especially important when working with young children to help them identify with the character they are portraying or simply to help them express emotions.
What is psychodrama?
Psychodrama is a form of group psychotherapy developed by J L Moreno from the 1920’s onwards. This therapy provides participants with an opportunity to explore life situations from the perspectives of the present, past and future. The psychodrama therapist will actively draw on the group’s energy and spontaneity to explore the protagonist’s situation; how past experiences have influenced thoughts, feelings and behaviours in the present, which in turn shapes the future.
By working in this creative way, the significance and meaning of events becomes clearer. Using imagination and the support of the group, the past can be reviewed and understood from a broader perspective while any unexpressed thoughts and emotions are released. From this more complete understanding, it is hoped that a different possible future can be both imagined and experienced. New responses can then be identified and practiced, giving the possibility of greater well-being in the future.
What is the difference between psychodrama and drama therapy?
Both psychodrama and drama therapy utilise drama and theatre techniques and can work in individual and group settings. There are however a few notable differences:
How it works
Drama therapy works in an indirect way, believing that distancing the client from their dilemma will make it easier for them to perceive it from a different and more creative angle.
Psychodrama instead identifies a protagonist with a specific issue. The therapist works directly with the protagonist, maintaining the focus on this problem throughout the psychodrama, while utilising group energies and creativity.
Drama therapy often uses metaphor, a myth or story (distancing techniques) to identify a universal theme, which helps the client be more playful and to explore their issue with less shame.
Psychodrama, however, works directly with the protagonist's story and can use distancing techniques when required.
Drama therapy often leaves the client with new information and a different view of the dilemma at the end of the session, which they can go on to consider and reflect further in their own time.
Psychodrama aims to have a resolution, or potential solution, by the end of the session.
Drama therapy is legally protected by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), meaning that therapists need to be registered with the HCPC to be called a drama therapist.
Psychodrama is not legally protected, however it is recognised as a form of psychotherapy and is registered with the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP).
What can drama therapies help with?
Drama therapy and psychodrama do not require any previous acting experience, making it accessible to a wide variety of people. Ranging from young children to the elderly, this form of therapy can be helpful for many issues including the following:
Those with an addiction may find drama therapy a useful tool as it offers a safe environment to express emotion. It can be hard for some to do this in a normal counselling session, so drama therapies can provide an alternative.
In drama therapies people dealing with addiction can explore a drug-free future and practice new skills, such as saying no when offered drugs/alcohol. They can also act out more negative behaviours in order to consider their harmful impact in a more tangible way. Exploring issues in this way can offer enough distance so that their addiction and related issues do not overwhelm.
Having an anxiety disorder can make some everyday tasks difficult. Through drama therapies, these tasks can be 'rehearsed' and explored in a safe environment. An example of this would be someone with agoraphobia pretending to be in a large crowd of people. During this scene the actor can analyse the way they feel and learn new coping mechanisms without feeling any real danger.
Socialising with other people in group drama therapy sessions is also a great way to build confidence and improve social skills.
The communicative and social nature of drama therapies can be especially helpful for those with depression. Talking to and interacting with others can help to ease symptoms of depression, while acting out certain scenarios can help to develop coping mechanisms.
Some people with depression find it hard to feel emotion and may feel 'numb'. Drama therapies can help individuals to name their feelings and express them in a safe environment through drama.
The very nature of an eating disorder makes the relationship between the sufferer and their body a particularly fraught one. As drama therapy focuses a lot on the body and movement, this is one way to try and improve this relationship. Having a better awareness of the body in particular can help those with a distorted view see themselves in a more realistic and positive light.
Eating disorders are normally symptomatic of deeper issues which are being dealt with unhealthily. Drama therapies can help sufferers to explore these issues in a safe way that is not too overwhelming. These types of therapies can also offer a new way of coping with negative feelings, rather than the sufferer relying on the disorder.
Drama therapies utilise the art of pretend and can almost act like a practice ground for those with low self-confidence. Providing a safe and secure environment, drama therapy allows individuals to act out the way they would like to be (in this case more confident) helping them to learn skills they can put into practice in real life.
On top of this, drama therapy can help those with low self-confidence to explore any underlying reasons for their lack of confidence. This way they can address any issues in a safe environment.
Those who have difficulty communicating or trusting may well benefit from drama therapy. As drama therapy tends to be a group-based therapy, it requires teamwork and communication. This alone can help to develop such skills, while any underlying issues can be explored in a safe and therapeutic environment.
Schizophrenia is a mental health condition that involves a variety of symptoms including hallucinations, disordered thinking and paranoia. The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends creative therapies such as art, music and drama therapies as a form of treatment. These kinds of therapies help to harness the creative side of those with schizophrenia and can offer a form of release and expression.
Self-harming is usually a physical act that is used as a way of dealing with distressing emotions. Drama therapies can help the individual face these problems in a healthier way through acting. As this therapy tends to take an indirect approach, those who self-harm feel safe and not overwhelmed.
Alternatives to self-harm can be explored through drama therapy, giving participants useful skills to take out of the workspace.
Experiences of abuse, bullying or other forms of trauma can all be explored within a drama therapy session. The drama therapist may ask you to improvise similar scenarios to help you understand why the trauma affected you the way it did. This kind of work is often cathartic and helps to build self-confidence.
The title of drama therapist is protected by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), which means that in order for someone to call themselves a drama therapist, they must be registered with the HCPC. In order to register, drama therapists need to have completed an approved programme in drama therapy.
Your drama therapist should be able to provide evidence of their registration with the HCPC so that you can verify their status.
What qualifications does a psychodrama therapist need?
Even though the title psychodrama therapist is not legally protected by the HCPC, it is recognised as a form of psychotherapy and is registered with the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP). In order to become a UKCP accredited psychodrama therapist, professionals must undertake an in-depth four-year course in psychodrama.